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The Bug: A Novel

3.58  ·  Rating Details ·  489 Ratings  ·  87 Reviews
With a New Introduction by Mary Gaitskill

A PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Ellen Ullman is a "rarity, a computer programmer with a poet's feeling for language" (Laura Miller, Salon). The Bug breaks new ground in literary fiction, offering us a deep look into the internal lives of people in the technical world. Set in a start-up company
ebook, 384 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Picador (first published 2003)
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Stephen Gallup
Aug 20, 2008 Stephen Gallup rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this quirky novel on a table in the break room where I work, and once I opened it I couldn't put it down.

How could anybody not recognize and identify with this opening scenario/rant:

"And so we waited. Tick-tock, blink-blink, thirty seconds stretched themselves out one by one, a hole in human experience. Waiting for the system: life today is full of such pauses. The soft clacking of computer keys, then the voice on the telephone telling you, 'Just a moment, please.' The credit-card reader
Nov 29, 2015 Parker rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This one was so engrossing I canceled plans and stayed up late just to finish it. It's a wonderful novel from Ellen Ullman about software development at a database maker during the early- and mid-80s PC revolution, but it's really about relationships between people, and between people and machines, and how we deal with flaws in those relationships. Most surprising to me, is that the software bug named in the title is fleshed out as a specific and realistic programming error, and is actually the ...more
Lisa Eckstein
Nov 25, 2014 Lisa Eckstein rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2014
This novel is about the quest to track down and fix a software bug, and I've never read another piece of fiction that makes authentic programming details such an integral part of the plot. If you're tickled by the idea of "kill -9" as a plot point, you'll like this book. But if you don't know what this means, don't worry, because all is entertainingly explained within the text, and the story is about so much more than a bug.

The setting is the mid-1980s, during the early days of graphical user in
Dec 02, 2007 Trish rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's an engrossing depiction of the early days of computer technology and computer start-ups -- similar to Plowing the Dark in the accuracy with which is captures the thought processes, foibles, and lifestyles of those we call geeks. The Bug focuses on two employees of a database start-up: Ethan Levin, a prickly programmer with a neurotic sense of inadequacy and a spiralling personal life, and Roberta Walton, a refugee from academia who first scorns and then embraces the arcana of the computer. ...more
M. L. Wilson
May 09, 2013 M. L. Wilson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Bug is the debut novel of writer and computer programmer, Ellen Ullman. The novel is a semi-autobiographical story which is based upon her years working as a programmer in for a company in California’s “Silicon Valley” in the 1980s. Ullman fleshes herself out in the novel through the character of Roberta Walton, a quality tester at a small software firm. It is through her discovery of the presence of a software syntax error—a bug—that breathes life into the novel.

Ullman does a fine job of se
Nov 08, 2009 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009
The Bug is a novel that my father gave me for Christmas last year; I put off reading it until the summer because I wasn't sure I could read it in good humor while still taking a programming class.

The two novels it most reminds me of couldn't be more different. It's like Microserfs in the way it chronicles the social fabric of a technology project--the collaborations, rivalries, and moments of shared insight. But it's much more literary than Coupland; it also reminds me of Netherland in the way i
Martin McClellan
May 27, 2013 Martin McClellan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ullman is an American treasure. So rarely do voices so unique and interesting emerge, and in her case only after a career in a field unrelated to writing, but related to this book: computer programming. This is not a page turner, although I certainly kept my interest. It is not a thriller, or a paint-by-numbers escalation into an expected exegesis.

This is a novel exploring the obsession and devotion it takes to hold a portion of a complex programming problem in your mind, and execute it. In thi
Marie desJardins
A book about computer programming and debugging -- what could be cooler?

Unfortunately, for me, it just didn't hang together that well.

The characters are so stereotyped, I got tired of the "you can only program if you're obsessive-compulsive and antisocial" theme. Even Berta, who starts off kind of normal, turns more and more antisocial when she starts learning how to program.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the bug that eludes them throughout the book just shouldn't have been that hard to fi
Sep 01, 2008 Graham rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: programmers
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 13, 2008 Katie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a programmer I enjoyed reading about the weird little phenomena that I thought were experienced by just me, but that are actually common. Like the weird frequency with which I think of the answers to programming problems in the shower - I really thought that was just me! Also, how there are more left-handers among programmers than in the general population (I am one). It was also interesting reading about the debugging process articulated into words so well. Not sure how interesting this book ...more
April Sarah
Jan 08, 2015 April Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
It was a used book that some how grabbed my attention and demanded to be bought. It isn't my usual read but I found that I did enjoy it.

The writing style isn't that inviting, in fact it seems kind of impersonal at times, just like the coding it is telling about. That fact is both a plus and a minus in its favor.

The book left a deep impact on me after the end. It seemed like a story that could easily happen to anyone in the field of programming and it almost reads as if it could be a real life e
Dec 28, 2013 Yoly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As developers at some point in our profesional lives we are haunted by "the bug", not just A bug, but THE bug. It's that bug that makes no sense, that after hours of debugging you can never figure out but of course will always crash your application in front of a customer. This book is about a programmer and this type of bug.

I really liked the story. I think this book does a great job portraying how a programmer feels when trying to find THE bug. Based in the mid 80s, the book can get very ge
James (Xiong Chiamiov) Pearson
As a programmer, I felt the emotion here - I know what it's like to be bothered day and night by a bug I just can't track down. But I also know there's a fairly simple solution that works most of the time: get a fresh set of eyes on the problem.

Often you don't even need to have another human involved (see rubber duck debugging). But when months and months pass, (view spoiler) - why on ear
Aug 12, 2009 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: NY Times Book Review 15 June 2003
Shelves: read-fiction
I love novels that about life at an average workplace, because we spend so much of our time doing this but it is often ignored as a topic. This is a good novel but not a very cheerful one, because sometimes people and things go spinning out of control and all we can do is watch. This book is worth going out of your way to find and read.
Vivian Sophia
was thoroughly engaging and entertaining. A great read. I stayed up to finish it.
Mike Cuthbert
This novel was a difficult read for me for obvious reasons: my mind does not work well within the confines as restrictive as that of writing or reading computer code and that’s what this is all about. Lest I frighten anybody off, I still found it a compelling mystery read for all the usual reasons: something is wrong in the world and it is up to better minds to find out what it is and fix it. In the case of “The Bug,” what’s wrong is a bug named UI-1017 that pops up in a fictitious lab and has t ...more
Aug 30, 2012 Nathan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I heard about Ullman after a WSJ review of her new book, which mentioned The Bug in conjunction to the algorithmic trading mishaps recently. From the blurb I was expecting a sci-fi novel about a seemingly innocent programming bug that propagates with unintended consequence, threatening society. The book is much different, being both more personal and profound.

The novel centers on two employees of a Silicon Valley tech start-up - a programmer (Ethan) and a quality engineer (Berta). The mechanism
Bill FromPA
In many stories, the protagonist seems to have an occupation only as an afterthought, a character needs a certain income and lifestyle so the author makes him or her a technical writer, a lawyer, a receptionist, or provides some other unremarkable employment so that the real story, about a love affair, a missing child, or a mental illness can then be told. Ellen Ullman does not take this approach; her characters spend a lot of time and mental effort at their jobs and manage to live their persona ...more
Sep 25, 2012 Holly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012-reads
I was surprised (and pleased) at the extent to which Ullman presages Jaron Lanier. I cannot now recall if he mentions her in his writing, since I wasn't familiar with Ellen Ullman when I read You Are Not a Gadget nor with the New Yorker article. Just going to quote two nice passages near the end so that I can come back and read them later:
... there is the problem of crossing the chasm between human and machine "thought": some fundamental difference in the way humans and computers are designed to
Adrian McCarthy
Apr 18, 2012 Adrian McCarthy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I stumbled upon a description of this book earlier in the year and added it to my reading list. Just a few weeks later, a friend who had read my book, _Blue Screen of Death_, said he enjoyed BSoD much more than _The Bug_, so naturally I moved it up to the top of my reading list.

Comparing them isn't fair. _Blue Screen of Death_ is a genre mystery. _The Bug_ is a mainstream literary work, mostly a character study. Nevertheless, there were some striking similarities: both are narrated from the poin
Apr 19, 2013 Adil rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Hey John," I said to my coworker, "you should totally check out The Bug!"

"Well, what's it about?" asked John, who is also a software developer.

"It's about some people who may have gone insane while trying to fix a devious computer bug!"

"....get it away from me!!"

After finishing this book, I can understand my coworker's hesitance to face such a thought. Ullman has penned every software developer's worst nightmare into existence: she has created an unbeatable software bug that, when coupled with
Parker Avrile
I forgot who rec'd this book to me but, no, this is not for me. I wanted to read a story, not trudge through the pages of painful details about a boring man's boring job. I really had to skim a lot to find out what happened to the MC and, I have to say, I rather regretted when I did. But if you're into the history of code and the early days of computers, it might be right for you. I have to say, if you want to read this, do NOT, I repeat do NOT get the Kindle version. There are portions of the t ...more
Aug 25, 2011 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Bug is probably my favorite of the books I've read in 2012. Ostensibly about the frustrations and minutiae of programming, the book is an excellent work of literary fiction that delves into some philosophical thoughts on the nature of humanity itself. It tells the story of a young programmer whose quest to fix an obscure but critical bug consumes his personal life, which crashes down around him just as the bug crashes the computers it runs on. Although a bit tedious in some parts, the novel ...more
Steev Hise
Dec 03, 2016 Steev Hise rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anybody but especially people involved with software QA or engineering
Shelves: novels, fun, own-it
Excellent read. Ullman really captures well both the technology and the mental lives of people in the software industry. The story also has a narrative arc that's relatively non-standard and unexpected - it's not one of those stories where I'm constantly thinking "oh I bet I know what will happen now."

(Also, parenthetically, the short tryst between programmer and system administrator is one of the most erotic sexual subplots I've read in a while.)

Really good, expertly written, and covers such a
Dec 06, 2012 Kent rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
This novel mostly takes place in 1985, which is around the beginning of my career as a software engineer. The book is not about programming, but it attempts to tell a significant story about a programmer in the context of his personality disorders amid the hunt for a particularly troublesome bug.

Although the writing was good -- there are many well-drawn characters and a few compelling scenes -- I found that the story just didn't sound 'true' to me. Even though my profession has led me to meet ma
Izzy Dee
Oct 18, 2016 Izzy Dee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Highly engrossing and thrilling techno-novel which delves into a programmer's compelling and at times volatile relationship with his creation, a flora and fauna of codes and (technical) bugs. The book segues between Berta Walton, academia reject who has taken a career as a software tester and Ethan Levin, a devoted programmer whose debugger and program became the celestial objects in which his life revolved around. Upon the discovery of this menacing and impenetrable bug called The Jester or UI- ...more
Jun 09, 2012 Emmi rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book is a novel about two people who work at a software startup in the mid 80's. I almost didn't finish it, but I wanted to find out what happened. I give the author credit for that. But it was pretty repetitive, including many scenes of one character freaking out, behaving obsessively, and writing code to distract himself from his life. And it had too much technical stuff, a lot of it explaining software concepts. And the book includes actual C code. I don't know what this book would be li ...more
Alan Newman
Nov 10, 2014 Alan Newman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a remarkable novel: a psychological thriller; a cautionary tale about empathy, obsession and self indulgence; a scathing critique of bureaucracy and venture capitalism in the computer industry; a philosophic treatise on the differences of Man and Machine; a literary allusion to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in which the central character is both creator and monster. I know nothing about computer programming and learned much from reading this: I will never again move the mouse without thinki ...more
Nov 17, 2015 Charles rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
First, let me state that I have a lot of respect for Ms. Ullman as an Essayist on computer technology and techie org behavior.

Being a refugee from geekdom, "The Bug: A Novel" accurately describes the technology and socio-dynamics of writing software in those bygone days. However, the novel is wan and bloodless. Ms. Ullman's prose is crisp and clean to read, but it fails to convey strong emotion. In particular, she misses the potential for the humor, ironic, puerile, or otherwise in the story.

Aug 05, 2016 Fred rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fictional story set in the 1980's about a front-end programmer trying to find a level 1 catastrophic bug in his code that is impossible to reproduce. It's a system crasher that only appears at the worst possible moments - at customer demos, VC meetings and trade shows. No core dump, no stack traces, nothing to help track it down. It's a very familiar situation for most programmers and causes an incredible amount of stress. Ullman's story examines the side effects and human impacts of t ...more
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Ellen Ullman is the author of By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.
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“Debugging: what an odd word. As if "bugging" were the job of putting in bugs, and debugging the task of removing them. But no. The job of putting in bugs is called programming. A programmer writes some code and inevitably makes the mistakes that result in the malfunctions called bugs. Then, for some period of time, normally longer than the time it takes to design and write the code in the first place, the programmer tries to remove the mistakes.” 5 likes
“The machine seemed to understand time and space, but it didn’t, not as we do. We are analog, fluid, swimming in a flowing sea of events, where one moment contains the next, is the next, since the notion of “moment” itself is the illusion. The machine—it—is digital, and digital is the decision to forget the idea of the infinitely moving wave, and just take snapshots, convincing yourself that if you take enough pictures, it won’t matter that you’ve left out the flowing, continuous aspect of things. You take the mimic for the thing mimicked and say, Good enough. But now I knew that between one pixel and the next—no matter how densely together you packed them—the world still existed, down to the finest grain of the stuff of the universe. And no matter how frequently that mouse located itself, sample after sample, snapshot after snapshot—here, now here, now here—something was always happening between the here’s. The mouse was still moving—was somewhere, but where? It couldn’t say. Time, invisible, was slipping through its digital now’s.” 4 likes
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